Café Buunni Brings Coffee, Ethiopian Flavors to Washington Heights

Cafe Buunni co-owners Sarina Prabasi (left) and Elias Gurmu (right) with their daughter. Photo by Bo Campot.

Cafe Buunni co-owners Sarina Prabasi (left) and Elias Gurmu (right) with their daughter. Photo by Bo Campot.

Whether they come for the morning rush or a leisurely coffee education, Washington Heights residents have a new specialty coffee house—the first upscale shop of its kind to open in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood.

CaféBuunni, which opened in mid-September, boasts a communal table built by a neighborhood dad, artisanal  soy milk from SoyHound, locally baked goods and even fresh fruit smoothies for kids. But the coffee, sourced directly from Ethiopia, is the real star.

“A lot of the neighborhood is in here,” said owner Sarina Prabasi, who lives near the shop’s Pinehurst Ave. location.

The café is off to a strong start. On its opening day, Café Buunni was flooded with customers and had to close early when it ran out of coffee.

“I kept saying that all this neighborhood needs is a high-end coffee shop,” says Washington Heights resident Alana Murphy, a CUNY graduate student. “When my roommate found out this was opening, she sent me an email with the subject line ‘Dreams really do come true!’”

Cafe Buunni's interior in Washington Heights. Photo by Nancy Ryerson.

Cafe Buunni’s interior in Washington Heights. Photo by Nancy Ryerson.

The café’s house blend combines Peruvian beans with several different Ethiopian varieties. Each type of bean has a unique flavor profile—from fruity to chocolaty.

“We want to connect our customers and neighbors with the coffee and flavors that they’ll really love,” Prabasi says.

Those flavors come straight from the source. Prabasi and her husband and co-owner Elias Gurmu have been running an online coffee business since 2011. They travel to Ethiopia regularly to pick out the best coffee to sell online and, now, in their shop.

Coffee is a huge part of the Ethiopian economy, which is why Prabasi and Gurmu are committed to sourcing coffee from small, organic and fair trade-certified farms.

“I know the people’s lifestyle and how hard the work is,” Gurmu says. “Hopefully the fair trade makes a difference in their lives.”

Most of the Ethiopian coffee plants grow at high altitudes, Gurmu notes, where colder temperatures require a longer growing cycle, giving the fruit more time to mature. That makes for more complex sugars in the bean and a bold flavor without a bitter edge.

Cafe Buunni's storefront in Washington Heights. Photo by Nancy Ryerson.

Cafe Buunni’s storefront in Washington Heights. Photo by Nancy Ryerson.

Gurmu and Prabasi hope Café Buunni’s customers will be able to taste that difference. In the future, they also hope to introduce other Ethiopian traditions to the cafe, like a coffee ceremony where  gossip and news is shared while coffee beans are cleaned, roasted, ground and brewed in a special pot, then served with popcorn—a combination Prabasi swears by.

“It’s the opposite of your morning rush,” Prabasi wryly notes.

Café Buunni, 213 Pinehurst Ave., Washington Heights, Manhattan, 212-568-8700, buunnicoffee.com/cafe/

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